Clinton and Syria: Stupidity or Something Worse?

In any critical study of US foreign policy, one question is bound to arise: Are they really this stupid?

By “they” I am of course referring to the politicians and advisers that have set and implemented the disastrous course of foreign intervention. The question is aimed at trying to explain these repetitive failures.

Depending on the politician at hand, stupidity can offer a reasonably persuasive explanation for foreign policy decisions (ahem, George W. Bush and Iraq comes to mind). But for many others, it doesn’t seem to apply. For example, I do not think President Obama or Secretary Hillary Clinton are stupid or ignorant on matters of foreign policy. In spite of this, they have still committed many of the same mistakes as their predecessors–overthrowing sovereign governments, backing dubious radical groups, etc.

I raise this point because we now have new evidence which confirms that, in fact, Clinton is quite knowledgeable about one of today’s most prominent foreign policy issues, Syria. The evidence comes from a transcript of Clinton’s notorious Goldman Sachs speeches, which were recently leaked by Wikileaks. This particular speech occurred in June 2013, before President Obama’s more public push for strikes directly against the Syrian government.

In the speech, Clinton displays a remarkably accurate grasp of the players and forces at work in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, her characterization is not altogether different from one you might read from me or other commentators that support nonintervention. The problem is that, in spite of her understanding of the situation and the risks involved, she supports a dangerous strategy of intervention anyway. Here are some relevant excerpts from a talk she gave in June 2013 (emphasis mine):

So let’s just take a step back and look at the situation that we currently have in Syria. When — before the uprising started in Syria it was clear that you had a minority government running with the Alawites in lead with mostly the other minority groups — Christians, the Druze, some significant Sunni business leaders. But it was clearly a minority that sat on top of a majority. And the uprisings when they began were fairly mild in terms of what they were asking for, and Assad very well could have in my view bought them off with some cosmetic changes that would not have resulted in what we have seen over the now two years and the hundred thousand deaths and the destabilization that is going on in Lebanon, in Jordan, even in Turkey, and the threat throwing to Israel and the kind of pitched battle in Iran well supported by Russia, Saudi, Jordanians and others trying to equip the majority Sunni fighters.

Here, Clinton is acknowledging that, at least by 2013, the conflict had devolved into a complicated proxy war. It was no longer a simple story of oppressive government against pro-democracy protesters. Rather, it was a civil war that had been thoroughly hijacked by outside interests. She continues:

I think that we have tried very hard over the last two years to use the diplomatic tools that were available to us and to try to convince, first of all, the Russians that they were helping to create a situation that could not help but become more chaotic, because the longer Assad was able to hold out and then to move offensively against the rebels, the more likely it was that the rebels would turn into what Assad has called them, terrorists, and well equipped and bringing in Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

This is a key insight. Civil wars have a kind of positive feedback loop when it comes to bloodshed. As the civil war drags on, the most violent actors on both sides come to the fore and moderate voices fall away. This makes sense given that moderates, almost by definition, probably wouldn’t choose violent insurrection as their preferred solution for redressing grievances. Later in the speech, Clinton acknowledges these patterns even more explicitly:

So the problem for the US and the Europeans has been from the very beginning: What is it you — who is it you are going to try to arm? And you probably read in the papers my view was we should try to find some of the groups that were there that we thought we could build relationships with and develop some covert connections that might then at least give us some insight into what is going on inside Syria.

But the other side of the argument was a very — it was a very good one, which is we don’t know what will happen. We can’t see down the road. We just need to stay out of it. The problem now is that you’ve got Iran in heavily. You’ve got probably at least 50,000 fighters inside working to support, protect and sustain Assad. And like any war, at least the wars that I have followed, the hard guys who are the best fighters move to the forefront.

So the free Syrian Army and a lot of the local rebel militias that were made up of  pharmacists and business people and attorneys and teachers — they’re no match for these imported toughened Iraqi, Jordanian, Libyan, Indonesian, Egyptian, Chechen, Uzbek, Pakistani fighters that are now in there and have learned through more than a decade of very firsthand experience what it takes in terms of ruthlessness and military capacity.

In other words, the US has few good options in terms of who they should arm because whatever moderates did exist are slowly being drowned out by more experienced and extreme fighters. This dovetails closely with what President Obama had said publicly–when defending not intervening more heavily in Syria. In particular, he said that the idea that the moderate rebels would emerge as  the dominant and effective fighting force, even with US help, has“always been a fantasy”.

But finally, I saved the best for last from Clinton:

So we’re not as good as we used to be, but we still — we can still deliver, and we should have in my view been trying to do that so we would have better insight. But the idea that we would have like a no fly zone — Syria, of course, did have when it started the fourth biggest Army in the world. It had very sophisticated air defense systems. They’re getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports. 

To have a no fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk — you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.

Now, we learn that the Syrian military is reasonably strong, and that it has been bolstering its air defense systems. Additionally, Clinton acknowledges that a no-fly zone would require killing  “a lot of Syrians” because all air-defense systems would need to be blown into oblivion. And the US would get the blame for it–which would appear appropriate in such circumstances.

To a normal person, these probably seem like bad things–US pilots could be at some risk, many civilians would die, the US government would be blamed for escalating it, and, the rebels that would benefit from a no-fly zone are increasingly dominated by extremists. And yet, Clinton is currently in support of a no-fly zone. She maintains this position even though she can articulate many of the key reasons that it’s a terrible idea.

Summing it all up then, we see the incredible incompatibility of Clinton’s knowledge and her actual policy proposals.

She acknowledges Syria is a proxy war and the rebels are becoming more extreme and radical all the time as the war persists. And since this was over three years ago, one assumes these trends have continued to weed out any moderates remaining in the forces.

Additionally, Syria wouldn’t be quite the same easy bombing campaign like Libya, because it has more air defenses and a stronger military. And if the US did try to make a no-fly zone, they’d have to kill a lot of Syrians in the process. This would be darkly ironic, of course, since the ostensible purpose of a no-fly zone would be to save Syrian lives, not destroy them. She supports intervention nevertheless.

But it’s important to notice what isn’t going on here. At least as expressed to Goldman, Clinton’s policies do not stem from ignorance or stupidity in the normal sense. Rather, she seems to understand the risks and the reality quite well–and she has just decided on a dangerous policy anyway. 

In most instances, being knowledgeable is a major virtue in a political candidate. But in the case of Clinton’s foreign policy, it is a severe demerit. If her hawkishness was motivated merely by ignorance, new facts and new failures could cause her to change course. However, the antidote for her clear-eyed belligerence is going to prove far more elusive.

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